The response was the same as the others from Paul Felder’s mother, Marian, after her little boy won his 17th prizefight, defeating Edson Barboza at UFC 242 last September.
“All right, that was a good one,” she said. “How about now?”
“Now” is the time for her son to hang up the gloves and return to acting while commentating on UFC fights and not participating in them. It’s a mom thing. But she knew the answer that was coming back.
“Well now I'm number six in the world, mom,” said Felder. “It's tough to hang 'em up when you're that close to a potential contender fight or title fight.”
He laughs, touched that his mother cares so much, but knowing that if there was any time to keep going in this hardest of games, it was now.
“She understands,” he said. “She hates it and loves it at the same time.”
MORE FROM UFC AUCKLAND: Hooker Has Earned This Moment | Fight by Fight Preview | Fighters On The Rise | Matthews Assures Entertainment | Free Fight - Hooker vs Vick | Kai Kara-France Making Dreams A Reality
The same can be said for the man in the arena, the sixth-ranked lightweight in the world who will put that number on the line on Saturday night in Auckland, New Zealand against Dan Hooker. He loves the fight game, loves the time in the Octagon, but when it comes to leaving his home in Philadelphia to prepare for battle, that’s never easy.
“When that fight gets booked and I know I'm getting closer to leaving, each time it gets a little harder to pack those bags and get everything ready to go,” said Felder. “I can't wait to get home, but that makes you want to go fight even harder and get in there and get this job done and get back to your family. And that's what I love about this sport. All the things I hate are also the things I'm addicted to. I think that's what makes the greats who they are and what sets them apart is the willingness and the passion to put your body and your mind through what needs to get done.”
Felder has never shied from that part from the time he took his first paycheck for fighting back in 2011. But then, circumstances of his life dictated that he stayed at home and learned his craft in the tough Philly gyms that created so many gritty and successful fighters in both MMA and boxing. As the years went on and the stakes got higher, though, Felder would have more opportunities to hone his skills around the country. And in the last couple, his home away from home was with Duke Roufus and his gang of killers in Milwaukee.
It’s not a luxurious life during the time he spends there. No fancy hotels or high-tech training methods. It’s fighting the way it’s supposed to be practiced, and that means making those practices tougher than the fights.
“For me, the whole going away, going to Roufusport and being in Milwaukee, I gotta live in the suck a little bit,” he said. “I'm old school in that mentality. The old boxers used to go away for training camp, you leave your family, you're only surrounded by your team and the people that are there to prepare you physically and mentally for a fight.”
In doing so, Felder is forced to live an existence where his interactions with his four-and-a-half-year-old daughter Aisling are limited to Face-timing, and just hearing him talk about that makes it clear how much it pains him to be away. But he always reminds himself that the only way to keep his focus on the task of hand is to get into a mindset where the fight is all that matters.
“For a good chunk of my career, I would still be in Philly and I would be around my daughter, and when she was younger it was a little easier because even though it was stressful taking care of a baby, she didn't have a big personality yet,” Felder said. “Now, it's tough to be around that and be a badass the way I need to be a badass and come home tired. So Christine, her mom, is really taking on a big role in taking care of her when I'm gone, and my mom, too. Everybody takes care of my house and things while I'm gone, so I've got a good support system around me back home, and the team here has been pushing me to the limit for this one. We've got a five-rounder, a main event for the first time in five years in the UFC, and I feel like where I'm at, I'm at the point that I need to be and I think it took exactly the right amount of time for me to get here.”
Some would say the 34-year-old’s ascension to the top ten is overdue, but he’s never been in a rush. “The Irish Dragon” knew that in one of the toughest weight classes in the sport, patience is a virtue, and after 13 trips to the Octagon, there is no question that he is ready to face the elite. That’s a good thing, because there’s no turning back now, and he knows it.
“That's exactly what it feels like,” he said. “I feel like I made some choices in the last three years that are finally stacking up and putting me in the position to make a lot more money and make big fights happen and be in main events and fighting top contenders and that's where I want to be. I won't be fighting just for the money. Obviously, I want the money, I'm a prizefighter. But the only reason I'm fighting is to become one of the best in the world. And being away and going through all the sacrifice, it makes it so much sweeter when I get my hand raised. The sacrifice is over, I get to be around my team and you could see it in our last fight with Edson. My coach Daniel (Wanderley) was in tears. Duke (Roufus) is in tears, and it's because we know the amount of work that we put into this. And we're prepared for anything when it happens. We're not idiots, we know how this sport works. Any of these can be losses, so we enjoy it, and the last one was sweet, even though it was close. It was great to get that revenge against somebody that had given me my first loss and here we are, sitting almost at the top of the mountain. It's crazy.”
A win against Hooker, and that leaves only Donald Cerrone, Justin Gaethje, Conor McGregor, Tony Ferguson and champion Khabib Nurmagomedov ahead of him. That’s quite exclusive company to be in. Not that it matters to Marian Felder. She’s ready to see her son walk off into the sunset. And if he won’t, just win, Paul.
“My mom won't watch any of my losses,” Felder laughs. “The losses I've been involved in have still been exciting fights, but she'll only watch the ones I win. And some of the wins I've had I've gotten beaten up worse than in some of my losses, but she doesn't care. She'll only watch the ones I've won.”
For more information and updates, sign up for the UFC Newsletter here.